For years Sandy West has been talking about the book she was writing with her good friend and soul mate, Elizabeth Pool, who happens to be her sister-in-law.
I’d ask about the book but never really got an answer I could understand, particularly -- make that especially -- when I’d hear the title: The God of the Hinge: Sojourns in Cloud Cuckoo Land.
Still curious, I’d try another line of questioning, but it’s hard to tie Sandy West down. At age 93, she doesn’t have to do anything, answer to anyone or make the least bit of sense if she doesn’t want to.
So I gave up. It’s probably some nature book, I thought. Something about pigs or dogs or horses, all pals and/or best friends of Sandy’s from her decades on Ossabaw Island, a barrier island of some six inhabitants off the coast of Georgia that Sandy owned with her family before donating it to the state of Georgia.
Something about the politics of giving away an island to a governmental body. There’s not exactly much precedent for that. Or the stipulations she attached to the deal.
Or maybe it’s a book about all the brilliant people who have spent time there -- artists, scientists, writers -- because the woman is generous to a fault, always encouraging, inviting, inspiring people to experience (for a time) life without electricity, telephones, garbage trucks, bills, locks, even doors. She has something great -- not fancy, but great -- and she wants to share it with people who use their minds, their hands, their imaginations.
Yes. That’s it. It’s a book about famous people and what can happen if they get away from the familiar.
Except Sandy isn’t like that. She’s not a name-dropper. She’s not easily impressed. And for all the wealth she came from in Grosse Point, Mich., she’s doesn’t seem to give a rat’s ass for people with money, unless they have something interesting to say. Otherwise she’d just as soon find a shady spot near her house on Ossabaw Sound and using the backside of her pig Mrs. Musgrove as a pillow enjoy a good read and maybe a vodka martini a few hours later.
If anything, I thought, once I got the book in my hands, it’ll be a nostalgic memoir about a century past when good and evil were a little more easily defined, when people acted a little more civilly toward one another (regardless of how they felt). Like Sandy’s house on Ossabaw, it would tell of safaris, cruises, family jaunts.
This is a book about friendship, curiosity and expansiveness. it’s about two women with active minds, busy imaginations and antennae that extend in every direction. It’s about two friends who never stop wondering, never stop marveling or shaking their heads, never stop piecing together clues about their time on the planet.
Reading between the lines, we surmise these are two upper class women with rich husbands, perfect children, multiple homes, multiple staffs of workers, societal responsibilities. But there is none of that in this book because it’s not the ironed slacks, fine hats, leather gloves and matching pocketbooks that define these women.
What gets their attention is what goes on between the ears, what raises the hair on the back of their necks, what causes their stomachs to flutter. That’s what they’re about.
The motif for the book is travel, for which they obviously have the resources, the inclination, the desire. At a suggestion from either woman they might end up in Jamaica, Montreal, Nova Scotia, Santa Fe, Key West, Bermuda.
But this is no travel book. It’s not where they go that’s interesting but what happens to them when they get there, what particular thing catches their fancy. And finally -- and this is what makes them so extraordinary -- what they do with what they see, how they pursue what they call “symbols” and where, intellectually, their paper chase takes them.
In their search for serendipity or meaning, be it rainbows, circles, unicorns, sneezing, bells, labyrinths, harlequins or coral, they are relentless. Wherever they are, they will immediately retire to the closest library or duck into the nearest book store to research the symbolic meaning of whatever they perceive is dogging them.
Theirs is a life of mischief, tricksters, belly-laughs, discovery and enlightenment. Along the way they become intimate with characters in mythology (especially Hermes), the field of alchemy, the extent of androgyny. Modern science, they would both agree, especially physics and chemistry, is enemy No. 1.
Without saying it, how they lived is exactly what Shakespeare’s Hamlet had in mind when he said, “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio,/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Now for the title. “God of the Hinge” is a reference to a Walt Whitman line in “Song of Myself.” “Cloud Cuckoo Land” comes from Aristophanes’ play, The Birds, and refers to the idealistic state between heaven and earth. ç